who and whom in Guardian language blog
Posted: 15 August 2011 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Here.

David Marsh, who wrote it, adds in the comments part:

@tonyhb

Since you have done this twice now

If you consult a proper English grammar (i.e. written by a linguist, as opposed to a style guide written by someone with no training in linguistics, masquerading as a grammar) ...

I’ve got a master’s in English language and linguistics from UCL (where among others I learned from Quirk himself, as well as Quirk et al).

With a few exceptions such as David Crystal and Steven Pinker, most linguists can’t write for toffee, which is why Bill Bryson and Lynne Truss have done so well for themselves in this area.

As an editor and journalist I’m trying to help my colleagues, and our readers, to communicate clearly and coherently.

For the record, the Guardian’s is the least prescriptivist style guide on the planet and defines grammar (which I do not mention once in the blogpost, incidentally) like this:

Nowadays, grammar might be more helpfully defined as the set of rules followed by speakers of a language: for example, why in English we say “I went out” and not “I out went”. Using correct grammar is a way to communicate effectively, not to feel superior to other people because you know what a conjunction is.

Don’t feel too downhearted if you were taught grammar badly, or not at all; as the linguist Steven Pinker says: “A preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual”.

[ Edited: 15 August 2011 08:26 AM by venomousbede ]
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Posted: 15 August 2011 10:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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With a few exceptions such as David Crystal and Steven Pinker, most linguists can’t write for toffee, which is why Bill Bryson and Lynne Truss have done so well for themselves in this area.

I can’t disagree more. There are lot of linguists who write exquisitely well. Geoff Pullum, Arnold Zwicky, Dennis Baron, Victor Mair, Mark Liberman, and the others at Language Log are just some examples. It’s just these linguists tend to write about their specialties, as they should, and don’t all treat grammar and usage writ large. And I wouldn’t put Pinker in the category of a great popularizer of linguistics. His writing is a bit too academically and technically oriented for the popular audience. Which may be more a factor of the subjects that Pinker writes about than lack of a knack for communicating to a general audience; neurolinguistics is a pretty tough slog no matter how simple you try to make it. (And I’m not saying that Pinker isn’t a good writer; he is.)

And there a lot of people without PhDs in linguistics that write very well about language and get it right: Erin McKean, Bryan Garner, Jan Freeman, the late Bill Safire, Ben Zimmer, Grant Barrett, among others.

The reason Bill Bryson and Lynne Truss sell a lot of books is that they reinforce people’s prejudices by taking the side of the peevers. Both are quite incoherent, misinformed, and self-contradictory when it comes to writing about language. They sell a lot of books, but I wouldn’t call it “doing well.” It’s easy to be popular when you tell people what they want to hear instead of the truth.

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Posted: 15 August 2011 02:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Marsh says, “It’s true that when they speak most people don’t use “whom”, and with good reason: it would make them sound like pompous twerps”

I refuse to accept that I sound like a pompous twerp when saying “whom”. I imagine those listening to me find my mild fogeyism refreshing and engaging.

There’s some great knuckleheaded anti-Americanism in the comments pages, complaining about “normalcy” and even “guy”.

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Posted: 15 August 2011 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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the late Bill Safire

Bill Safire was an enjoyable writer and a great guy, but by no means did he “get it right,” except when he was schooled by his better-informed readers.  He was very good-natured about that and always credited his “Gotcha Squad,” but basically he did not know what he was talking about when it came to language, any more than Truss et al.

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Posted: 15 August 2011 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I was being nice, him being dead and all.

And he did publish corrections to what he wrote. I’d really like to see Truss admit just once that she is wrong.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 10:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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So would I.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Bryson’s books, too.  Never mind what they said, they were light, enjoyable reading.  I know that’s anathema to some of you, but as one of the great unwashed, I got what I wanted from both Bryson and Truss - pleasure without too much pain.  So, apparently, did lots of other people who bought their books.

Where’s the back door?

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Posted: 16 August 2011 01:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I have no problem with people getting pleasure from them, so long as they don’t try to get knowledge as well.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 01:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Dave Wilton - 15 August 2011 10:01 AM

There are lot of linguists who write exquisitely well. Geoff Pullum, Arnold Zwicky, Dennis Baron, Victor Mair, Mark Liberman, and the others at Language Log are just some examples. It’s just these linguists tend to write about their specialties, as they should, and don’t all treat grammar and usage writ large.

I had high hopes for the late Larry Trask to be the linguistics popularizer, in the Stephen Jay Gould vein.  Alas.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 01:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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ElizaD - 16 August 2011 12:50 PM

I enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Bryson’s books, too.  Never mind what they said, they were light, enjoyable reading.  I know that’s anathema to some of you, but as one of the great unwashed, I got what I wanted from both Bryson and Truss - pleasure without too much pain.  So, apparently, did lots of other people who bought their books.

Where’s the back door?

I enjoy Bryson’s travel books.  They are witty and engaging.  The only difficulty I have with them is to carefully remember not to internalize anything he says, as his reliability is very low.

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Posted: 16 August 2011 04:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I like Bryson’s travel writing too. He definitely has an engaging style.

I won’t say the same for Truss. I just found her strident and annoying.

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Posted: 18 August 2011 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’m not convinced that disliking ‘normalcy’ is knuckleheaded anti-americanism ... to me (a knuckleheaded Englishman), it sounds pretty awful. Guy, however ... well, that is protesting too much.

I find it hard not to agree about Ms Truss, however ... just irritating in so many ways.

And I love the word ‘whom’ - and if people think it sounds pompous, then fuck ‘em (to use the vernacular).

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Posted: 20 August 2011 03:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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@OP Tipping and Pete Langman

Aha. My boyfriend and I recently had this discussion. I had mentioned that while I always observe who/whom and fewer/less when writing, I rarely say them when speaking because (and I will give you the true quote here) “I sound like a wanker”.

He objected to this, and said that I shouldn’t dumb myself down.

I disagree, actually. I don’t know to what extent this is a British class-system thing - or indeed how many people here are British, American or other. But here in the UK, how you speak clearly places you in a certain category. For me, that would be lower-middle class, not that it actually matters. I learnt to speak within that group, grew up speaking within that group, and still speak as a member of that group - most of the time.

I also, however, spent my whole childhood reading (seriously - I maxed out my library limit on a weekly basis), and then went to university to study English literature. As a result, my written vocabulary is far, far wider than my oral vocabulary. Incidentally, having never spoken many of these words, I am regularly in danger of mispronouncing them when I do - with results that are sometimes hilarious and sometimes embarrassing. Recent boobs include: glibe instead of glib, and minute (tiny) steak instead of minute (60 seconds) steak.

I think it’s sometimes easy to get carried away with ‘correct’ language, and overlook its cultural role. In my case, I’m fairly alienated from my roots by the nature of my work and my interests. It’s already hard enough, when I go back, to find common ground. I suppose I hold on to my native tongue (for want of a better expression) in speech partly for this reason - it feels like an important part of my identity. And yet, when my family mimick me, I sound something like Stephen Fry, ferchrissake.

When I hear myself saying “whom” out loud, it just sounds wrong.

So that’s me. Judged from one side as “dumbing down”, from the other as “speaking posh”, and occasionally in possession of a word that would be perfect, if only I knew how it should sound. Blimey. Give me a book and a keyboard any day - it’s far easier.

I was going to say it’s far less judgemental, but I think we all know that’s not true!

[ Edited: 20 August 2011 03:58 AM by Cathy Relf ]
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Posted: 20 August 2011 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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@ cathy: Ah well ... I know how I want to sound, and I’m happy to be the guy who says whom and rarely ends sentences with a preposition: not because the alternative is irregular, but because sounded slightly formal in casual contexts pleases me. It’s a harmless (and above all inexpensive) hobby.

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Posted: 20 August 2011 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Indeed, and I have no problem with that at all. I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t speak correctly. My post was meant in a more contemplative vein - I think it’s interesting, the difference between oral and written word choice and sentence structure, as well as the way we express our identity through it.

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Posted: 20 August 2011 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I enjoyed your thoughtful comments, Cathy Relf. Stick around. I found your point about how alienation from one’s roots (which I think most of us experience, to some degree) affects one’s way of speaking, particularly cogent. And I’m sure your family are proud of you, even when they make fun of you.

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